A lecture by JOHNY ML delivered at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi on 7-5-2002

What makes human beings different from the other species of creatures on earth? There is a common saying that a human being can express whatever in his/her mind through words or deeds/gestures. To put it in other words, one could say that a human being can `narrate' his/her mental process of comprehending the world in which they live. This process of comprehension happens not only with the external world but with the internal world of one's own self also. But here I would like to give a twist to the way of looking at the narrative capacity of a human being. I would propose that what distinguishes a human being from the other forms of life is nothing but his/her capacity to create many sub-narratives from the available forms of narratives around.

Now it is urgent to tell my readers what a narrative is and of course what the sub-narratives are. Anything that is used for converting a place into a space of communion is a narrative. For example, when two or more persons come into a room the meaning of the place slightly changes. However, it does not become a space of communion. The persons in question try to study (if he or she is not so much self obsessed) each other in terms of the dress code, the items they carry in their hands and even the kind of perfume that they have sprayed on their curves and heights of their bodies. Once they feel the unbearable heaviness of being with each other, anyone of them who is feeling an urgency to get of the growing discomfort of being silent and strange within the same place would initiate a dialogue with anyone of the others. This initiation of the dialogue could be in the form of a smile (a special way of showing teeth to establish a rapport unlike the animals who use the same method to establish hostility), an extending of a hand, introducing oneself with a set of adjectives or just a set of nice words. These are all the components that make a place into a space of communion. And a chain of such components makes a narrative.

This does not mean that a narrative happen only in an active space (a space of communion). In other words a narrative is not strictly bound by the act of communication alone. A narrative can be an act of retrospection or introspection, critical reading of a contemporary event or a historical event. Once the social space/society is taken as a space of communion (a given paradigm), anything read out of that communion is a sub-narrative. In that sense, each person in the society is involved in creating a set of regular narratives and sub-narratives. I would like to add that a narrative (in the active sense) is a creative gesture and all the sub-narratives (whose creation happens mostly in physical isolation) are critical gestures.

Any active society works through the production of narratives. Interestingly, each narrative (thereby millions and billions of narratives produced during each and every passing moment) creates its own rules and regulations for making it easy for comprehending as well as for paving ways for producing similar narratives. When similar narratives are produced abundantly they get ingrained in the consciousness or the collective memory of a society thereby deciding the rules of social life according to the rules set up by the very same narratives that they had given birth to. In other words every narrative works through three different levels; narratives, meta-narratives and grand narratives.

I would like to quote Simon Malpas who has edited a primer of postmodernism titled `Postmodern Debates'. Malpas differentiates these three sections of a narrative in the following words: "The events, feelings, experiences that make up our lives are thought, described and even experienced in and as narratives. The rules of these narratives are given by `meta narratives' that indicate the sorts of statement that are legitimized for a particular narrative genre. The `grand narratives' of progress draw together all of the narratives and meta narratives in order to construct a historical, moral and political view of the world in which we live." (Post Modern Debates. Edited by Simon Malpas. Palgrave 2001).

The world unravels itself to the human beings in terms of knowledge, morality, identity, politics and freedom through narratives. But there are junctures where the common rules forwarded by the tri-component system of narratives fail to conceive and shape up a world for our comprehension. Moving from a familiar narrative to the unfamiliar one (making one to have the uncanny feeling) always causes a rupture that in turn goads the human beings to create a fragmented vision of the narrative. Modernism presented a narrative that took a prolonged time to seep into the collective consciousness of the society by constantly producing the tri-component narrative structure. Rules were set and the life seemed to be running according to the grand morals. But the ongoing social process brings in ruptures that threaten the magnanimity of the grand narratives. During the post-modern times this fragmentation became more and more strong and the human beings started creating/producing fragmented narratives that served the purpose of comprehending and communicating a fragmented world.

Despite the fragmentation of narratives, the space of communion is retained even in the postmodern conditions. What does it indicate? It indicates nothing but a society cannot be stripped off of its own narratives however fragmented they may be. I would like to add at this stage that the multitude of narratives produced in a society does not necessarily partake in the production of a society's art. Art, as far as the issue of narrative is concerned is one among many of the narratives generated in a society. Artists find a special way of telling their way of comprehending the art through a variety of media. Interestingly, these narratives could be a set of sub-narratives meanwhile giving birth to a host of sub-narratives. This is like a nuclear fission process and to follow this chain reaction of narratives one should need a very special receptive capacity, which could be called a system of cultural critique.

We have been talking about comprehending the world as a unitary whole. But such totalitarian views could be held only for forwarding theoretical propositions. As each person has a way of narrating the world, each nation has a way of narrating itself, particularly based on the grand-narratives produced over many cultural eons. Hence, the geographical mappings bring in another narrative that is so much rooted to the local and provincial cultures. One could say that a nation speaks through its narratives. And as a part of those national narratives, each creative individual is bound to go downstream or upstream with such narratives. So a narrative is not only an instrument to uphold ones creative presence legitimized by the geographically bounded grand-narratives but a critical tool that intervenes and generates critiques on such grand-narratives. To add flavor to such critical narratives, they carry the traces of the national grand-narratives as parodies or pastiches. Here reference of the grand-narratives becomes a sub-narrative in the process.

An unstinting faith in the grand-narratives, thereby the belief in the modern national concept and also a grand wish for a parallel unblemished land (Utopia), a land of equal right and justice forces the artists (generally human beings) to fall back into the sequential narrative techniques. Here one could move from one time to another with a godly ease within the same spatial temporality. One could tell stories of one's own exploits and adventures even while detaching from the whole scene. One can tell parables and self-contained autobiographical explorations. One can hunt with the dogs and run with the hares. But when the hopes for the Utopias collapse, you cannot hold on to the grand-narratives or their parallel sub-narratives. You need to create your own narratives that might be fragmented and frozen like cinema stills. These condensed narratives depict historical and critical understanding of the world that has been fragmented not only in the physical way but in the minds of the human beings also.


Authored and Published by JOHNY M.L MRINAL KULKARNI . Send us your responses, if any, in this address: johnyml@rediffmail.com or mrinalkulkarni@hotmail.com

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